The individual and the group

Essential understandings

  1. Our behaviour is influenced by others, even when we believe that we are acting independently.
  2. We have both an individual and a social identity which influences our behaviour.
  3. Behaviours are learned through our interaction and observation of others.
  4. Stereotypes affect behaviour.

    The sociocultural approach

    public domainPsychologists recognize that human behaviour can only be fully understood if the social context in which behaviour occurs is taken into account. One assumption of the sociocultural approach is that human beings are social animals and we have a basic need to “belong”. The biological and cognitive systems that make up the individual are embedded in an even larger system of interrelationships with other individuals. From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes a lot of sense that we rely on other people in order to survive, so belonging to a group is essential.

    The sociocultural approach also assumes that culture influences behaviour. Culture can be defined as the norms and values that define a specific group or even a society. In an ever more multicultural society, there is a need to understand the effect of culture on a person’s behaviour, because the study of culture may help us to better understand and appreciate cultural differences.

    Another assumption that defines the sociocultural approach is that, because humans are social animals, they have a social self. People do not only have an individual identity, but also a collective or social one depending on their various group memberships. For example, when Princess Diana died, people across the UK mourned as if she were part of their family. In the Czech Republic, when the national hockey team won the gold medal in the 1998 winter Olympics, one would have thought that every Czech had a brother on the team! You can probably find similar examples from your own country. Social identities are very important to the definition of who we are, and many behaviours are determined by membership to groups such as family, community, club, or nationality.

    A final assumption of the sociocultural approach is that our behaviour is influenced by others, even when we believe we are acting independently. In addition, the relationship between the individual and the group is bidirectional: as the individual is affected by being part of a group, the individual can also affect behaviour in the group – what Albert Bandura called reciprocal determinism.

    A lot of our behaviour is determined by social comparison.  We look to others in a group in order to determine how we are supposed to behave.  We may do that because we don’t know what is expected of us – for example, it is your first time at a debate club.  You are not really sure what the rules are and what the expectation is for participation.  During the meeting you look at how the other people are acting and then you understand the expectations and act the same way.  This is known as informational social influence.  Sometimes, however, it is not about figuring out what to do, it is about fitting in.  Remember, this approach argues that we have a need to belong. When we look to others to see how to behave so that we can be accepted, we call this normative social influence.

    When we adapt our behaviour to be in line with others, we call this conformity.  Since some of the examples in this unit will focus on conformity, it is important to understand how this phenomenon was investigated in a series of ingenious experiments by Solomon Asch.

    Research in psychology: Asch (1956)

    Asch used a lab experiment to study conformity.  His sample was made up of male students in the USA.  They were deceived and told that they were taking part in a ‘vision test’.  In his original research, the independent variable was the "number of confederates providing an incorrect response" – and the dependent variable was "whether or not the participant conformed" - that is, agreeing with the incorrect response.

    The naive participant entered a room where there were six people and the researcher. The men in the room were dressed like businessmen, in suits and ties. These men were part of the study, and they were playing a role unknown to the participant. They were confederates that helped the researcher to deceive the participant. The true aim of the study was to investigate how the naive participant would respond to group pressure in a situation where confederates give wrong responses to an unambiguous task. After the participant took his seat, he was shown cards similar to the ones depicted here.

    The participant was asked to select the line from the second card that matched the length of the line on the first card. There were 18 trials in total; in 12 of these trials, the confederates gave wrong answers. The confederates had been instructed to answer correctly for some of the trials, but to answer incorrectly for the majority of the trials. The goal was to see if the participant would act independently and give the right answer or go with the majority and give the wrong answer, even when it was very clear that this response was incorrect.

    To set up a control for the experiment, Asch had another condition where one participant answered all 18 trials without the confederates present and with only the experimenter in the room. Here the participants made errors in fewer than 1 percent of all trials.

    The results showed that a mean of 36.8 percent per cent of the participants agreed with incorrect responses in half or more of the trials. However, 24 per cent of the participants did not conform to any of the incorrect responses given by the confederates. In variations of the experiment, Asch showed that if there was one dissenter who gave the correct answer, while the other confederates gave the wrong answer, the rate of conformity dropped to around 5% of participants agreeing with the confederates at least once.

    During the debriefing after the experiment, Asch asked the participants how they felt about the experiment. All reported experiencing some degree of self-doubt about their answers. Those participants who conformed said that they knew their responses were incorrect, but went along with the group because they thought that they had misunderstood the instructions, and they did not want to appear to be against the group.

    ATL: Thinking critically

    Different textbooks explain the results of the Asch experiment differently.  Here are some ways that the data is explained to students of psychology:

    • 2/3 of the naïve participants conformed at least once.
    • 25% of the subjects were completely independent and never agreed with the erroneous judgments of the majority
    • 36.8% of the participants conformed in more than half of the trials.

    What different messages do these results send? Why could it be argued that the way this study is often represented in textbooks is misleading?

    According to Bond and Smith (1996) Asch's study does not only demonstrate conformity to group processes. Asch intended to demonstrate factors that enabled resistance to group pressure, and he saw these factors as rooted in a society's values and socialization practices. Although the focus on Asch’s research is often on the level of conformity, what is most interesting is the high percentage of participants who did not conform, in spite of the social pressure to do so.

    ATL: Inquiry

    There were several other variables that Asch investigated in his study of conformity.  For each of the following variables, what do you predict would be the effect on one’s likelihood to conform?  Be able to explain your prediction.

    • The size of the group
    • Whether the responses are made publicly or privately (written down)
    • One’s level of self-esteem
    • Gender of the participant

    After you have made your prediction, do a bit of research and see what the research says about the role these factors have on conformity.  Were your predictions correct?

    There have been several studies that use Asch’s procedure to test the effect of different variables on the level of conformity. The original procedure is now called the Asch paradigm. We will see two experiments in this unit that use this paradigm, so it is important to understand the strengths and limitations of this original study.

    The paradigm is easily replicated because it is a highly standardized procedure. Asch also used a control group to make sure that the task was, in fact, not ambiguous – in other words, the average person would have no problem identifying which two lines were the same length. Finally, Asch carried out a debriefing that helped him to understand the choices made by the participants – that is, whether they conformed or not.

    There are, however, several limitations of this study. First, the task – judging the lengths of lines - lacks any personal meaning for the participants.  In addition, the participants did not know the other people in the experiment. In real life, often conformity is a very personal choice that is affected by people you know.  You change the music that you listen to in order to fit in with your friends; you may even change some of your daily routines or habits in order to fit into a new culture.  This lack of connection to real life examples and the high level of control in the experiment means that it lacks ecological validity; it may not predict how people actually conform in real life.

    Research on jury decisions shows just how powerful the role of conformity may be in reaching a verdict. Waters  and Hans (2009) examined data from about 3500 jurors in the US.  The jurors were asked, “If it were entirely up to you as a one-person jury, what would your verdict have been in the case?” The researchers found that one-third of the jurors, privately, disagreed with the jury’s decision in the case. It appears that conformity may have played a significant role in their decision to vote against their own beliefs in the case.

    There are several ethical considerations when evaluating the Asch paradigm.  Asch used deception by using the confederates; he put participants in an embarrassing situation where they had to decide whether to believe their own eyes or conform to the opinion of the majority. It may be argued that it would not be possible to study conformity without the use of deception.  Conformity is very difficult to observe under natural conditions. Although Asch used deception, which means that they were not informed of the true aims of the experiment when they have consent, this does not mean that the study was not ethical. To ensure that participants were informed about the true nature of the study, Asch debriefed the participants, revealing the deception and discussing the results with them. 

    Finally, it is difficult to isolate variables when studying conformity. Although the independent variable of the original study was the “unanimous” or not unanimous response of the confederates, it is not possible to exclude other variables.  Since all of the participants and confederates were men, it is possible that they conformed because they felt that this was “their group” – known as an in-group.  It is also possible that the size of the group played a role.  We also cannot exclude variables like culture, the fact that responses had to be stated publicly or the gender of the participants.  Asch recognized that several variables may influence conformity and his later research attempted to investigate the role of these variables.

    Checking for understanding

    Which of the following is not an assumption made by social psychologists?

    Animals may be studied....  is an example of an assumption from the biological approach.

    Social psychologists believe that as the individual is affected by being part of a group, the individual can also affect behaviour in the group. What is the term used to describe this phenomenon?

    Bandura's theory of recipricol determinism says that our behaviour with a group is bidirectional - an individual affects a group's behaviour and the group influences an individual's behaviour.

    What was the independent variable in Asch’s 1956 study?


    The Asch paradigm is highly standardized.  Why is this important?

    When a procedure is highly standardized it is possible to replicate the study.  Only through replication can the reliabilty of the results be established.

    According to Asch, why did the participants conform?

    There were some participants who claimed that they thought they didn't understand the directions.  In this case, they followed what others did - a case of informational social influence.  In addition, some said that they felt that they didn't want to look stupid.  In this case, it was normative social influence.

    What was the control group in Asch's study?

    Asch wanted to make sure that it was in fact the power of social pressure - and not the ability to read the lines - that made the difference in the participants' responses.


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    Next chapter: Methodology in the sociocultural approach

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